Women’s Magazines. Encyclopedia of American Journalism

Magazines have historically reflected and responded to
women’s unique and changing roles in American society. Remnants of the earliest women’s magazines may be
glimpsed in contemporary publications that attempt to
mobilize constituencies and effect positive change in the
lives of women. Yet, even more enduring are profit-driven
magazines that address women as consumers. The influence of advertising is a historical constant in women’s magazines, even as they struggle to remain viable in the digital
Eighteenth Century
Previously excluded from political affairs, women emerged
from the American Revolution with a significant political role, albeit exercised within the home. The notion of
“Republican Motherhood,” as described by Linda Kerber,
fused private female virtues with civic obligations. As wife
and mother, a woman needed to be educated in the ideals of republicanism so that she could instill them in her
children and encourage them in her husband. As a result,
women were afforded greater educational opportunities
and increasingly, their rights and responsibilities became a
source of public interest. As printers looked for new audiences and women began to cultivate the reading habit, magazines emerged to address that group exclusively.
The first American women’s magazine, The Lady’s
Magazine and Repository of Entertaining Knowledge,
was begun by William Gibbons in Philadelphia in 1792.
Another magazine, Ladies Museum, was launched at the
turn of the century by Philadelphia bookseller and editor,
Isaac Ralston. Both magazines followed in part the model
set by English periodicals such as The Lady’s Magazine,
or Polite Companion for the Fair Sex, published in 1759.
British women’s magazines had a small but loyal audience
among wealthy Americans, and that fact did not escape the
attention of enterprising publishers in this country.
A wide variety of information was already being printed
during the period, but technologies were still relatively
crude. Thus, magazine pages were composed primarily of
text, punctuated with an occasional design element. A oneyear subscription cost about $2, a figure equivalent to three
days’ salary for a skilled laborer. The early women’s magazines carried little to no advertising.
These early periodicals were intended for elite readers,
evidenced by their content and cost. American women’s
magazines emphasized literature, fashion, and etiquette.
But in keeping with women’s new political ken, contributions also addressed women’s education and suffrage. In
fact, the first issue of The Lady’s Magazine and Repository
of Entertaining Knowledge included an excerpt from Mary
Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Scholars such as Amy Beth Aronson have argued that
women readers of this period were not a passive audience
suggestible to male editors’ paternalistic advice, but rather
were actively engaged in the critical selection and understanding of magazine content. One reason was the slapdash
fashion in which information was arranged. For example,
an item that began as an observation might end as a poem.
Stories were not always presented in their entirety, and
material was occasionally misclassified in tables of contents. Negotiating the magazines’ haphazard content was
“an exercise in versatility,” as Aronson wrote.
Importantly, early women’s magazines relied on reader
contributions and as such, provided opportunities for amateur writers to question authority, debate issues of concern
to women, and build consensus. This is noteworthy since
women of the period were allowed few chances to express
themselves in public forums. Still, it remains open to interpretation whether these early magazines promoted women’s
political independence or cemented their traditional domestic, maternal role.
Nineteenth Century
The nineteenth century is considered by some historians
to be the “golden age of magazines.” As leisure time and
literacy increased among Americans, so too, did the number of periodicals offering information and entertainment.
Improved printing technologies and favorable postage rates
further encouraged general-interest magazines, which proliferated throughout the 1800s. By the 1830s, nearly fifty
women’s magazines had appeared, many short-lived and
nearly all of them unprofitable. By 1860, some six hundred
magazines were being published and more than one hundred women’s magazines had come and gone. By the end of
the century, more than four thousand mass market publications were in circulation and magazine reading was part of
most Americans’ routines.
Whereas women readers of the previous century were
addressed as individuals with limited political prerogative, the most popular magazines of the nineteenth century
courted women as consumers of household goods. Publishers became more reliant on advertising revenues to sustain
their periodicals, particularly as the mass production of
branded goods increased and manufacturers and distributors clamored for promotional opportunities. Singer sewing
machines, cosmetics, and “safety” bicycles were among the
products advertised to women. By the 1880s, the amount of
paid advertising a publisher procured for a magazine was a
good indicator of its life expectancy.
Perhaps the most well-known women’s magazine from
this period was Godey’s Lady’s Book, published in Philadelphia from 1830 to 1898. The magazine was founded
by Louis Godey and a partner who soon bowed out of the venture. Godey then hired as his editor Sarah Josepha
Hale, whose foundering publication, Ladies’ Magazine, he
bought and merged with his own. Hale, an accomplished
writer and an advocate for women’s education and property
rights, served as Godey’s editor for forty years. Godey’s
soon earned a reputation for its literary quality. Hale published the work of established writers, such as Ralph Waldo
Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as poetry and
essays by promising new writers. However, provocative subjects were avoided. Hale was a reformer, but she believed
women’s province was the home and opposed suffrage.
Further, the magazine did not devote any content to slavery or the Civil War, at Louis Godey’s insistence. Rather,
Godey’s published articles on history, travel, care of home
and family, and sheet music and book reviews. Some historians have argued whether the magazine owed its success to
its hand-colored fashion illustrations, which showed readers the latest European styles and also provided work for
women artists. Even if it had no claim to intellectual heft,
Godey’s had a winning formula, and was a model for many
other women’s magazines that were launched in the nineteenth century, such as Woman’s Home Companion, Good
Housekeeping, and Ladies’ Home Journal.
Female editors of women’s magazines were rare during
this period, although Louisa Knapp Curtis enjoyed a highly
successful tenure as editor of Ladies’ Home Journal from
1883 to 1889. Her husband, Cyrus H. K. Curtis, published
the magazine and boosted its circulation with creative strategies such as discounted subscription rates, rewards for
subscribers, advertising campaigns to promote the magazine, and solicitation of national advertisers. Ladies’ Home
Journal was the first magazine to garner one million subscribers and, until the 1950s, had the largest circulation of
any women’s magazine.
Whereas many titles concentrated on the home, other
women’s magazines derived from pattern companies and
emphasized fashion, such as McCall’s, Delineator, and Pictorial Review. Other magazines that targeted upper- and
middle-class women and focused on fashion and culture
were Vogue and Harper’s Bazar (later Harper’s Bazaar).
Although some women’s magazines took a stance on suffrage alongside other editorial material, their content was
characterized by a philosophical inconsistency. As Mary
Ellen Zuckerman has shown, articles addressed political
issues and described women who were pursuing careers
and interests independent of men, but fiction and editorials
were conservative, affirming women’s place in the home.
Overwhelmingly, content directed women’s attention to
homemaking. These editorial contradictions were the result
of a society in flux, a mixed bag of reader contributions, and
in some cases, reflected the personal beliefs of a magazine’s
editor or publisher.
At the same time, several journals were created for the
explicit purpose of promoting women’s rights. They resembled newspapers in format, but are often categorized as
magazines since many of them were published on a monthly
basis. One of the earliest such publications was The Lily, in
which founder Amelia Bloomer promoted suffrage, temperance, and women’s dress reform. The Una was founded in
1853 by suffragist and abolitionist Paulina Wright Davis; it
was owned, edited and written solely by women. Woman’s
Journal was launched in 1870 by Lucy Stone, a co-founder
of the American Woman Suffrage Association. One of
Stone’s partners in forming the AWSA, Josephine St. Pierre
Ruffin, began a periodical in 1890 to promote black women’s rights, the Woman’s Era. Most prominently, Susan B.
Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, co-founders of the
National Woman’s Suffrage Association, began a weekly in
1868 called The Revolution in which they argued for suffrage, equal pay for equal work, and an eight-hour work
day. Although these publications enjoyed loyal readership,
their circulations remained small and so too, did their coffers. Despite their relatively short runs, these periodicals
demonstrated the increasing prominence of women, and the
need for forums in which to discuss issues that specifically
affected women’s lives.
Twentieth Century
The popularity of magazines continued to intensify during the twentieth century, and gave rise to the “Seven Sisters,” the name given to the top-selling women’s magazines:
Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping,
Family Circle, Woman’s Day, Redbook, and Better Homes
and Gardens.
Ownership of magazines tended toward concentration. Publishers who produced multiple titles could charge
advertisers higher rates to reach the readers of all their
magazines. Bigger profits allowed publishers to further
improve the production values of their magazines, and hire
established writers to generate content. The Hearst Corporation, for example, published Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Pictorial Review, Delineator,
and many other popular titles. Of course, this meant that
the fate of an individual magazine was directly affected by
the success or failure of its parent company. When Hearst’s
finances were strained to the point of bankruptcy in 1937,
unprofitable magazines were sold or folded.
Magazine content was affected by the dramatic social
and political changes of this century. In the early 1900s,
women’s magazines encouraged readers to take up community service, manifesting the preoccupations of the Progressive movement. Also characteristic of the era was an
interest in investigative reporting that uncovered corruption and waste in the public and private sectors; magazines
proved the ideal site for that kind of long-form journalism.
When William Randolph Hearst bought Cosmopolitan in
1905, he began to publish the work of muckraking journalists such as Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair.
With the outbreak of World War I, the content of women’s
magazines took on an international character, describing
the social and political history of Europe, and how war was
affecting Europeans. When the United States entered the
conflict in 1917, articles and editorials instructed women on
ways they could contribute to the war effort, such as food
conservation and relief work. Magazines that had taken up the issue of suffrage now minimized such content and even
criticized concerns for women’s rights as selfish in wartime.
As with other mass media in wartime, magazines were subjected to government pressure, such as Woodrow Wilson’s
“advice” to Ladies’ Home Journal editor Edward Bok that
he should emphasize home front preparedness over straightforward news of the war.
Content in women’s magazines during World War II was
similarly affected by censorship and propaganda, as magazines and advertisers worked with government to boost
morale and build support for the war effort. When large
numbers of men vacated jobs as they were called into service, the magazines encouraged women to step in, although
they were careful to emphasize that employment was “for
the duration.” Most magazines counseled women to maintain an attractive appearance no matter how filthy the work
might be, and to remain focused on the home and family to
which they would return full-time at war’s end. Equal pay
and the continued employment of women were two postwar issues that magazines covered, but few took a decisive
editorial stand, arguably squandering any gains women
made with their wartime contributions.
As the women’s movement gained momentum in the
1960s, magazines increasingly came under fire for encouraging women’s domesticity rather than their political autonomy. Betty Friedan argued in The Feminine Mystique that
magazines represented women as “gaily content in a world
of bedroom, kitchen, sex, babies, and home,” contradicting the average American woman’s experience. Unhappy
housewives were instructed to overcome their frustrations
with energetic cleaning. “Beat the daylights out of your rugs
or super-polish every table in your house,” a 1950 McCall’s
article told readers. They should do so with the magazine’s
advertised products, of course.
The idealized domesticity espoused in so many women’s magazines was an indication of the close relationship
between editorial content and advertising. Magazines had to
compete with newspapers, television, and radio for advertisers, and so the editorial side was more beholden than
ever to provide “complimentary copy,” as Gloria Steinem,
a founding editor of Ms. magazine, called it. Competition
in the media marketplace was heightened by the fact that
publishing costs increased after World War II and profit
margins decreased. Newsstand purchases diminished as
more people moved to the suburbs, and magazines became
more reliant on subscriptions, which were expensive to post
and to service. Thus, while readership continued to grow, a
healthy circulation did not always ensure a magazine’s long
life. Advertising revenue now accounted for more than half
of a magazine’s profit.
This century also gave way to specialization, a way to
court readers with specific interests and in turn, attract more
advertisers. Among the broad category of women’s magazines emerged several subgenres that appealed to working-class women: pulp magazines such as Love Book that
emphasized romantic fiction, confession journals including
True Story, and fan magazines. At mid-century, Vice Versa,
the first lesbian magazine was published in Los Angeles.
Though none of these titles was very successful at attracting advertisers, they offered an alternative perspective
among publications aimed at middle-class women. Perhaps
more successful were efforts to capture the teenage market. Seventeen, aimed at girls ages twelve to twenty-four,
emphasized fashion and first appeared in 1944. It eventually achieved a circulation of more than two million. Many
other similar publications with such titles as Cosmo Girl,
Teen, and Girl’s Life Magazine targeted the teen market.
The upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s made way for niche
magazines that further narrowed audiences. One of the most
dramatic transformations was that of Cosmopolitan, which
was recast in 1965 by Helen Gurley Brown as a journal for
single working women preoccupied with sex and popular
culture. As a contrast, Gloria Steinem’s Ms., launched in
1972, became a leading feminist publication and in 1989,
became one of the few magazines to publish an ad-free
format. Other magazines dedicated to professional women,
such as Working Woman and Working Mother, provided
career advice, tips on financial planning, and strategies to
cope with workplace issues. Essence, a magazine targeted
to middle-class black women, was founded in 1970.
In the 1980s and 1990s, magazines targeted to “older”
women appeared on newsstands. Three magazines aimed
at readers aged thirty to fifty were launched with varied
success, Mirabella, Lear’s, and More. Although magazines
continued to be popular reading material, they faced stiff
competition from other mass media, such as cable television and the Internet.
Twenty-First Century
Faced with competition for consumers and more importantly, for advertisers, from the Internet and other emerging technologies, magazine publishers struggle to remain
viable in a digital age when the number of online niche
publication grew substantially. Interestingly, many of their
strategies are souped-up versions of traditional ones, such
as cooperative advertising and subscriber discounts. Ownership is more concentrated than ever.
By now, all major periodicals have an online presence.
Some publishers, such as Hachette Filipacchi, moved to
web-only versions of their titles when print advertising
flagged. Online efforts range from digitized versions of the
printed page to sites that feature video, message boards, and
podcasts. An effort to cultivate the magazine habit among
young readers is apparent now in a cornucopia of titles targeted to teenage girls and young adults. Condé Nast combined material from its three bridal magazines on a single
interactive web site that allows users to “try on” wedding
gowns, create a wedding scrapbook, and customize content
by their location. Perhaps harkening to the earliest women’s
magazines, some online magazines call for user-generated
content and allow that to dominate their web sites, no matter how hodgepodge.
Magazines remain profit-driven and thus, intent on
wooing advertisers. In 2006, revenue spent on Internet
advertising exceeded the amount spent on magazines, although the products being advertised have changed little.
Magazines may cooperate with technology companies to
retain advertisers. Google, for example, bought ad space in
magazines and then resold it via online auction. One result
was the appearance of new advertisers in magazines whose
rates they could not previously afford.
In the early twenty-first century, women often edited
the top women’s magazines, although they moved rapidfire from one title to another. This was particularly true as
magazine ownership became concentrated among fewer
companies. A successful editor at one title was easily transferred to revive a troubled magazine owned by the same
parent corporation.
Publishers continue to generate new magazines every
year. As women’s lives become more complex, magazines
targeted to their niche interests may always be relevant, even
if they are used as a springboard to web-based resources.
Further Reading
Aronson, Amy Beth. Taking Liberties: Early American Women’s Magazines and Their Readers. Westport, CT: Praeger,
Harris, Sharon M., and Ellen Gruber Garvey, eds. Blue Pencils
and Hidden Hands: Women Editing Periodicals, 1830–
1910. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004.
Tebbel, John, and Mary Ellen Zuckerman. The Magazine in
America, 1741–1990. New York: Oxford University Press,
Walker, Nancy A. Shaping Our Mothers’ World: American Women’s Magazines. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi,
Zuckerman, Mary Ellen. A History of Popular Women’s Magazines in the United States, 1792-1995. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Barbara G. Friedman